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Do we need a new design for democracy?

Frank Litton*

What’s wrong with our politics?ToC

While the Irish economy is not in crisis, it is certainly ill. The problems faced in restoring it to health are not solely economic. Politics cannot be separated from economics. Political failures can extend economic woes as when, for example, ‘short-termism’ delays much needed medicine. Economic failure can cause political strife: how well would Irish democracy cope if the legion of young, uneducated men and women who are the casualties of these woes mobilised? So it is not surprising that, just as economists diagnose the economy and deliver their prognoses (see, political scientists view the ‘body politic with some concern (see However, the workings of the body politic appear to be more opaque than those of the economy. The economists share a basic understanding of how the elements of the economy relate to each other. This allows vigorous debate and the possibility of successful prescriptions. While the proposals of the political scientists seem plausible - for example, change in the electoral system, improved committee system in the Oireachtas - it is hard to evaluate either their feasibility or likely effect.

Everyday brings fresh evidence of discontent with the conduct of our politics. The columnists, commentators and writers-to-the-editor suppose we all know how the system should work. They never make explicit what a properly functioning democracy in the 21st century would accomplish. This discontent is not confined to Ireland. However, in other countries it has led to reflection on the nature of democracy and the challenge it faces today. Pierre Rosanvallon is one of the most acute commentators on the condition of democracy. In his most recent book to be translated into English* he provides a persuasive analysis of how the character of democracy has changed and the problems this poses. The introduction of this analysis into the conversation on Irish politics would I believe heighten its relevance and strengthen its conclusions. It is hard to characterise Pierre Rosanvallon. Professor and chair of modern and contemporary history at the College de France, he has made well-regarded contributions to French political history. And while not a sociologist, he is well informed on matters sociological. He is a political philosopher but one who believes that political ideas cannot be understood apart from their historical/sociological context. Ideas emerge in political practice which, in turn, they shape. He could be described as a political historian who recognises that political history makes no sense without study of the ideas that animate it. While these cannot be understood apart from the play of interests and power, they are not reducible to it.

The design for democracyToC

Rosanvallon’s historical perspective allows him to separate the tasks of democracy from the institutional arrangements that attempt to accomplish them. These tasks require the balancing of contending, if not conflicting, requirements. As circumstances change the balance of forces changes, the institutions come under stress, and adaptations to the design for democracy are necessary.

Rosanvallon discusses the interplay of two central tasks, or dimensions, of democracy. The first is concerned with mechanisms for agreeing common goods and the parameters of a just society, while the second is dedicated to preventing the abuse of power by elected representatives and their officials. The emphasis given to each dimension varies from one period to another. In the 19th century when the foundations of our design for democracy were laid the emphasis was on the first dimension which Rosanvallon calls the ‘electoral/representative’. This is not surprising for, during this time, politics was shaped by the tension between political and social legitimacy. The former demanded universal suffrage which the latter appeared to make impossible. How could universal suffrage be conceded in societies marked by deep inequalities and social conflict? This tension was eventually successfully managed by mass political parties. They succeeded in expressing and containing the social divisions that threatened to capsize the democratic project. The parties could do this because they were deeply rooted in society. They helped form, and express collective identities whose interests they defended. Party newspapers expounded their visions of a good society and explained how their programmes intended to realize it to docile (‘apt to be taught’) supporters. The parties competed in terms of different visions of national and social development. Disputes about common goods and the parameters of a just social order were not the only items on the political agenda. The second dimension of democracy, the concern to prevent the abuse of power that Rosanvallon labels ‘counter-democracy, was in play as opposition parties had good reason to deploy the resources of democracy in scrutinizing and interrogating the doings of government. This proved to be a robust design for democracy that more or less successfully, managed conflicting interests and sustained trust. However, it is now, Rosanvallon contends, undergoing a process of radical transformation. The Irish case provides ample evidence for this general trend.

Consider the changes in the electoral/representative system. As we have seen, political parties were its key component. Their role has been transformed. In the 1970’s some sixty per cent of the population had some level of attachment to a political party. Rather than voting for a party because they believed that it came closest to advancing their interests, they joined to discover what their interests were. In those far off days, to support a political party was one way of letting people know who you were. These loyal supporters could have their faith confirmed by reading the party newspaper. Nowadays the figures are reversed. Some 60 per cent declare no attachment to any political party. These volatile voters can read about the failures of whoever is in power in any newspaper or hear them denounced on the broadcast media. The search for an explanation of this development could begin with the growing individualization of western cultures that has seen the fading away of those grand narratives that sustained collective identities. In the Irish case, the Catholic Church provided the most authoritative, the most complex, the most encompassing of grand narratives. Not surprisingly, most attention has been paid to its spectacular decline. However, we should also note that the nationalist narrative makes less and less sense in a world where policies are made by pooling sovereignty in the European Union and that the narratives which political parties or the trade union movement provided have also lost their powers of attraction. Indeed, it could be argued that their decline has been more rapid than that of the Church. The cultural resources out of which collective identities could be shaped are, it appears, no longer available. This must have profound consequences for democracy. Rosanvallon argues that, as the electoral/representative dimension wanes, counter-democracy takes centre of the stage.


Again the Irish case supports the analysis. Counter democracy is intent on surveillance and prevention. The office of Comptroller and Auditor General that we inherited from the British and to which we gave constitutional status has had its remit extended. The office together with the Committee of Public Accounts which examines its reports has grown in stature. The number of agencies - some state-sponsored (eg Ombudsman offices, Equality Agency, Standards in Public Office Commission), others non-governmental (eg Amnesty International, Irish Refugee Council, One-in-Four) - that scrutinise government activities have increased. The print media are no longer partisan. They subject all government to their suspicious gaze. The broadcast media, no longer content to chronicle the doings of government, interrogate them. Evidence of wrong-doing is actively sought. Scandals proliferate. Counter democracy is a politics against rather than a politics for. Reactive coalitions are the easiest to mobilise. The diversity of interests can be overlooked in pursuit of the one agenda item which all agree on. This is usually an emphatic ‘no’ to a specific policy proposal. Rosanvallon discusses how the growth of counter democracy has changed the conduct of elections: ‘to put the point a bit too strongly: no one is truly elected anymore. Those in power no longer enjoy the confidence of voters; they merely reap the benefit of distrust of their opponents and predecessors.’ (p176).


The growing importance of counter democracy can be welcomed as a strengthening of democracy. As scandals are exposed, high standards are affirmed and wrong-doing by politicians and their officials is deterred. We can expect that the defects in democratic accountability which allowed the abuses of the past that trouble us so much today are being repaired. However, these advances come with a cost. Counter democracy is rooted in mistrust and, as it grows stronger, citizens are less and less inclined to trust politicians. These seek to regain trust by the zealous exposure of the bad faith and incompetence of their rivals. Instead of specific proposals, they promise leadership. Politicians (and public servants) stand or fall by their reputations which are increasingly detached from any assessment of their political commitments and performance. This is one example of how counter democracy’s close attention to political power is ‘unpolitical’. The cacophony of denunciation and counter denunciation further increases citizens’ mistrust. The numbers prepared to support a political party consistently or to join one declines, as do the numbers of those voting in general elections.

Could this develop to the point where the legitimacy of the democratic order is itself questioned? Rosanvallon thinks that this is unlikely. There is no evidence that the democratic ethos is weakening. On the contrary, the increasing attention paid to human rights indicates that one of its foundations is secure. The problem of counter democracy lies elsewhere in the imbalance which its growth introduces to the democratic process. The design for democracy’s capacity to aggregate particular interests and identify and safeguard the public interest is weakened.


There are two developments that can be understood as a response to this. The first is the growing importance of what Rosanvallon terms ‘functional representation’, the second is the development of national partnership as a mode of policy-making. Courts are the prime example of functional representation. They represent the public interest not because the judges are elected but because they are experts in interpreting and applying the law that defines the public interest. As the public, and the politicians, lose faith in parliament’s ability to protect the public interest, the sphere of functional representation expands beyond the courts with the formation of new agencies. An Bord Pleanála and regulatory bodies are the obvious examples but there are many more. One researcher has identified thirty six bodies that could plausibly be identified as functionally representative (Hallinan, 2009). The advantages and disadvantages of this development have hardly been discussed. We need to understand the ground rules that will maximise the former while protecting us from the latter.

There have been a number of initiatives to engage the public and interest groups more directly in policy-making. Local authorities have introduced ‘strategic policy committees’. The recently disbanded Forum on Europe encouraged debate between politicians and civil society on the European Union. Of course the most significant development has been National Partnership as between Government, employers and trade unions. Working in conjunction with the National Economic and Social Council (NESC) this took on the task of aggregating interests that political parties have abandoned as electorally unrewarding. Its approach was pragmatic: rather than seeking agreement on a shared vision of a good society, it encouraged interest groups to identify how their particular interests could best be pursued in a horizon of shared problems and acknowledged interdependence.

These developments are probably best seen as symptoms of problems rather than completely satisfactory solutions. This is particularly so in the case of National Partnership which has apparently failed at a moment when it is needed most. The discussions on reforms of the electoral/representative system are further evidence of dissatisfaction. Some argue that changes in the electoral system will allow a new type of politician who is interested in policy in the medium to long term to emerge. Others propose that changes in the Oireachtas committee system will allow politicians find hitherto unrecognised rewards in teasing out the intricacies of legislation. Reducing the number of Dáil deputies and abolishing the Seanad will, it is argued, restore public trust in the legislature.

Democracy, legitimacy and political judgementToC

If Rosanvallon is correct such remedies are likely to have only a limited effect. For the problem lies not with institutional defects in the electoral/representative system but in the changed relationship between political parties, society and the citizens. So where should we look for remedies? While Rosanvallon’s analysis does not point to any particular reform, it does help us conceptualise the problem. Democracy is a work-in-progress. We cannot expect that a design which more or less successfully accomplishes democratic rule in one set of circumstances will continue to do so as these change. To sustain the democratic project we have to ask what the design is for. The temptation is to give an answer too closely tied to the particulars of a specific design. While political parties, electoral systems, interest groups, and parliaments are undoubtedly components of democracy, they are only so because of their contribution to the realisation of democracy. To examine this contribution we need a more abstract understanding of democracy. Rosanvallon’s historical analysis suggests that we understand the democratic project as essentially engaged in establishing a certain type of legitimacy and enabling political judgement.

Rosanvallon proposes three aspects to democratic legitimacy. The first establishes the right of the majority to rule. Universal suffrage ensures this. The second provides that this rule is not captured by particular interests but is exercised in the general interest. Both electoral and functional representation serve this purpose. The third, substantial legitimacy, is satisfied when citizens are convinced that a policy conforms both with the common good and with fundamental social values.

Passing judgement is a central political task. Judgements are a special form of decision. Unlike decisions that are made in the course of policy-implementation they are not pragmatic, sometimes tentative, and open to revision. They decide on more than an action, they assert the public good. They educate us in that good as they advance it. Rosanvallon lists a number of forums where judgments are made. These range from the very rare - in Ireland unheard of? - impeachment proceedings to general elections and include criminal courts, tribunals of enquiry, expert committees, the court of public opinion and parliamentary proceedings when the opposition acts as prosecution with the government as defendant. While our present design may be good at passing judgement on individuals as it holds them to account for what they have done or failed to do its capacity for passing judgement on policy is weak. Hence the development of National Partnership as a mode of policy-making. It sought to circumvent political judgement and address the problem within the administrative sphere. This perhaps explains why it has ultimately failed. Unpolitical solutions cannot, in the last analysis, be found for pressing political problems.

The Irish Government has decided to establish the National Assets Management Agency (NAMA) to deal with the assets of financial institutions affected by the current banking crisis. As I write, the process of legislating for NAMA draws to a close. The exercise would provide an excellent case study for examining democracy in the Irish state. The Government’s right to rule is unquestioned. Functionally representative bodies will, it seems, play an important role in overseeing NAMA, suggesting both a lack of faith in Government and the mechanisms of parliamentary accountability. As to the substance of the policy, the dominant voices in the debate were not those of politicians but of ‘independent’ economists and expert bodies (European Central Bank, International Monetary Fund). Will the public accept that a sound judgement has been made? It is hard to believe that the case study would not reveal serious weaknesses. The challenge would then be to propose remedies which would enhance legitimacy and strengthen judgement.

Rosanvallon’s analysis tells us that we should look for remedies in institutional initiatives beyond the electoral/representative dimension. The development of ‘citizen juries’ or other modes of citizen participation that are directed towards political judgement and the education of the public in policy matters should be considered. Could the advantages of National Partnership be regained if its deliberations were brought closer to political judgement in a second chamber - the Seanad - where the ‘partners’ would be asked to account for their contribution to the common good? In other countries we find ‘think tanks’ playing an increasingly important role in informing public opinion and contributing to ‘substantial’ legitimacy. How could they be encouraged in Ireland?

  1. Hallinan D (2009) Functional representation: unelected public representation and the role of autonomous agencies. Unpublished MA (Public Management) dissertation, Institute of Public Administration.
  2. Mair, P. (2006), ‘Ruling the void: the hollowing of western democracy’ in New Left Review, 42, 25-51.
  3. Rosanvallon, Pierre, Counter Democracy, Politics in an age of distrust, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.